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John Ruskin's Correspondence with Joan Severn: Sense and Nonsense Letters (Legenda Main Series)

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As happened on more than one occasion at Winnington Hall, the girls’ school where Ruskin taught in the 1860s: Burd, Winnington: 500. Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray first appears in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine . InternationalCecil Rhodes, organiser of the diamond-mining De Beers Consolidated Mines, becomes premier of Cape Colony as part of his expansionist aims in South Africa. I was asked two weeks since to offer the prayers of the Church for a dear friend – In answer I said that I certainly would for prayers might be answered in other ways besides miraculous healing – as e.g. by mitigation of pain or peace of mind and that happened in this case for the disease was of the most agonising kind, he had not a throb of pain; and his mind was in perfect peace and clearness till the very last, knowing everything and thinking of every-body[']s good.

Still, she says, some letters do seem to indicate sexual interest. One Ruskin posted to his friend, the artist Kate Greenaway, on 6 July 1883 (cf. Batchelor: 315). One of the things that had attracted him to Greenaway’s art was her delicate drawings of children. As their friendship deepened, as had been the case with other young artists he had taken under his wing, Ruskin began to instruct Greenaway on ways to better her technique. Here he comments, first, about a drawing of a sunset she has sent, then he remarks on three drawings of “sylphs” which arrived in the same post: Information panels are in each of the rooms (foreign translations are also available) and volunteer stewards are often on hand to answer questions. For younger visitors there are a range of quizzes and activity sheets. On the letter, after the word “round,” Joan Severn, Ruskin’s caretaker cousin at Brantwood, intercepting the letter before it left for London, wrote in pencil: “Do nothing of the kind.” To which, Ruskin, discovering Joan’s interpolation before the letter posted, rejoined, on the reverse side: “That naughty Joan got hold of it—never mind her—you see, she doesn’t like the word ‘round’—that’s all.”The omissions are serious, because, as we know too well from recent, terrifying headlines, pedophilia is not only a real thing in our world, it is, when practiced in its most virulent form on the innocent and vulnerable, a practice which maims its victims for life, a practice which is, from any civilized perspective, monstrous. From which viewpoint, it makes little difference whether the cases contending whether Ruskin was a pedophile or not are weak or strong. The real issue is whether he was one. Hence, there is no help for it but to embark on a careful study of the malfunction hoping that, when that effort arrives at its conclusion, we will be able to say definitively whether he was a “sexual adventurer” driven by a malicious “desire for…little girls” (Robson: 97) or that he was, when it came to matters erotic, something very much milder. An Assessment of the Evidence In his second volume, Hilton has more—but not considerably more—to say about Ruskin’s interest in girls. It was, he writes, a focus which waxed and waned. In some places where he indicates this interest, he appears to be saying, without, as noted above, writing the word, that the examples are indices of pedophilia. Only once one in his long volume does he print the term: in the index (645). There he encloses “paedophilia” [British spelling] within quotation marks, adding the phrase, “and interest in young girls.” No explanation is given for this mode of specifying. (The first volume index does contain a reference to paedophilia.) Ruskin reading Walter Scott to Joan Severn, Alexander Wedderburn (?), and Laurence Hilliard in the Dining Room at Brantwood. Arthur Severn. Watercolour. Courtesy of the Ruskin Foundation (Ruskin Library, Lancaster University).

Earlier (20 March 1884: Swett 50), he had written, “one must confess to one’s Mammina when one’s naughty.” The house affords a unique opportunity to look into the daily life of one of England’s most important social and cultural figures. The atmosphere at Brantwood is special, and because so many of Ruskin’s possessions remain, it feels as if the man himself has just stepped out into the garden! It has been my extensive experience that this same reaction occurs on the western side of the Atlantic.For a second account which parallels Webling’s, one which also stresses Ruskin’s positive influence on her life, see Goring. Ten when she met Ruskin, the holographs of the 27 letters he sent her during the first half decade of the 1880s are at New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library (hereafter PML; MA 4778). Comparison of these holographs with the transcriptions appearing in her published account shows them to be identical. Like Webling’s memories, they are devoid of any remarks which might be considered sexual. While the above, given the charges of pedophilia which have circled about Ruskin like a troop of avenging angels for decades, is the most important conclusion of this essay, by itself, it is insufficient to rule out other suspicions concerning his erotic abnormality, suspicions which might arrest the interests of those who, while perhaps willing to accept on the basis of evidence presented here that Ruskin was not the degenerate they imagined, might still harbor thoughts that some other erotic fault, as yet unspecified, surely accounts for his distasteful interest in young females. It is to an examination of such possibilities that we turn now.

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